Quiet Heroes

(This was originally posted to my Facebook page as a “Note” on Monday, 13 July 2009 at 23:24)

I recently had an unusual moment while sitting on a bench, at Lime Ridge Mall, in Hamilton, Ontario.

It was the end of a long day and I was tired. I let my eyes close gently and fell into a sort of momentary reverie, into a half doze, I suppose. After a minute or two, I drifted back to the world and noticed that a woman, in her late 50s or early 60s – it was hard to tell, she had one of those ageless faces – had sat down beside me. She looked disconsolate. Being naturally nosy, and seeking a momentary diversion from the day’s efforts, I asked her what was wrong.

She turned her head sharply to face me, as though I had startled her and then moved her gaze to some imaginary place on the tiles in front of us. In a gentle, lilting voice, she told me that her heart was broken that day. She looked down at her shoes. She was embarrassed by the fact that I had noticed her emotions. Expecting a typical tale of love lost, I asked her what was wrong. That was when she related to me a most extraordinary story.

I will call her Jeannette. She lives in an apartment building in Hamilton. She is alone but has a roommate. It is a run down building full of older people and their pets, cats and dogs mostly. Jeannette had lived on her floor for 25 years and seen many people come and go. She had seen prosperity and then decline. As the years flowed by, her friends started passing away or leaving, but one friend in particular worried her. This friend had an autistic son who had grown up to be a dysfunctional adult – for lack of health care and therapy but also because of the severity of his affliction and his mother’s poverty. His mother had spent much of her time and all of her scant resources caring for him. About ten years ago, she had lost her job and Jeannette had felt it was her duty to step in and help her friend cope.

Jeannette spent time caring for the son when his mother was not around or too depressed to be able to. She took him to the store and to his medical appointments, as well as for walks in the park. She says that he didn’t talk much – he just enjoyed sitting on the bench with her and watching people walk their dogs or looking at squirrels chase one another up and around the oak trees. The chattering squirrels always made him laugh. Jeannette didn’t go on vacation very often because she knew that mother and son couldn’t take care of themselves without her help.

Very recently, the son had passed away, and then, a few days before our chance meeting, his mother passed too. Jeannette suspects that she took her own life.

So this morning, Jeannette woke up decided to go to the mall, alone and free for the first time in years. To spend a few hours among people. To take her mind off things. She was not at ease. Her mind was racing with the reality of what had happened. She had spent the last seven years as a sort of sleepwalker in a dream, slowly deepening her commitment to helping mother and son, until she became a primary caregiver. Now that they are gone, Jeannette is struggling with the fact that her life was put on hold for so long. She doesn’t resent or regret anything – she just feels sad and lonely. She feels spent.

After this encounter, an idea entered my consciousness. The idea of people, strangers often, feeling the responsibility to care for one another and going to great sacrifice to do so. I heard similar stories again and again from others. The roommates in a house who cook and clean for a housemate who has severe panic-anxiety disorder. The student who falls into a deep depression and becomes dependent on her neighbours to the point that they took her on vacation and paid for her, for fear that she would hurt herself while they were gone. The brother and sister who put their lives aside for years to care for a sibling who has a personality disorder. The friends who take a friend who is scarred from an abusive relationship into their home and under their wing. These are but a few examples of those, who like Jeannette, have felt the moral or ethical duty to help and care for the people around them who are vulnerable and hurting because of mental illness.

These stories reveal a hole in our social safety net.

We have not figured out how to deal with the social cost of mental illness for the people who live around and care for the sufferers. Quite often it seems that it is these quiet heroes, who give so freely and completely of themselves who are the only firewall between the mentally ill and complete social alienation, loneliness and rejection.

They stand at the edge of the abyss and are vigilant – pulling the vulnerable back from the void when they approach it. They bring a measure of security and stability to lives that would otherwise be precarious. They bring love and the light of friendship to lives otherwise hidden behind a closed door or shrouded in the darkness of profound loneliness, isolation and hurt. They do this at great cost to their finances, emotional well-being and personal freedom.

Something has been overlooked here.

Building a caring society – a loving society – means finding ways to take the pressure off the generous family members and strangers who are dealing with the wages of knowing and caring for someone who has mental illness.

These quiet heroes are holding the ladder while the rest of us climb. Something must be done to help shoulder their burden. As a society, we have moved toward de-stigmatizing mental illness. Investing millions to improve the identification and diagnosis of mental illness is one thing. Building a more caring, loving and mutually supportive society is another.

Is this utopian? Not at all. It simply requires a cultural sea change away from selfishness and personal insecurity toward sharing and confident openness. Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities are an excellent example of how this can be achieved. It is possible to build more humane, caring communities.

This is a job for governments and faith communities at every level. It can no longer be ignored. We need to start working hard to build, with our leaders, a better culture of mutual support and respect, rather than one that seeks to maximize personal success and prestige.

To walk this road, we need to acknowledge that by including the vulnerable as equally valuable to us, we are not being condescending or charitable, but rather engaging in an exchange that will lead to mutual transformation. The helper becomes the helped.

We must link arms and find a means of integrating, including and healing those who suffer from mental illness rather than isolating, rejecting and neglecting them.

Then, perhaps, we will be able to unburden the quiet heroes, like Jeannette, who give so freely and so completely of their lives to keep the vulnerable away from the cliff’s edge of despair, while the rest of us live on in happy oblivion.

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